No more skimping on the Clean Election Fund

Portland Press Herald

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Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Maine's Clean Election Fund is more popular than ever.

In 2002, 62 percent of candidates for the Legislature used the program. That rose to 78 percent in 2004.

This year, about 90 percent of announced candidates for the Senate and 85 percent running for the House have pledged to use public money for their campaigns. So have eight of the 14 candidates for governor.

For critics of big-money, pay-to-play politics across the country, Maine's program has been a guiding light.

But the Legislature's fecklessness may cause the fund to run dry.

Last year, lawmakers returned $2.4 million of the $6.75 million that was borrowed several years ago. That leaves another $4.8 million, interest included, still outstanding.

Officials with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which administers the fund, said this week the fund balance is just $3.5 million, with the June primary and November election cycles fast approaching. The fund can also expect its annual $2 million allocation from the state budget.

If all eight gubernatorial candidates qualified for public funding, there could be $9.3 million in demand. That's on top of some $6 million that might be needed for the 186 legislative races.

Even the fund's most ardent supporters must realize the state faces too many other pressing needs to justify allocating more than the fund can reasonably be expected to need.

But Mainers have made thousands of $3 donations to the fund from a check-off box on state income tax forms. They probably didn't think they were establishing a legislative rainy day fund.

The time to pay that back is now. Not some now and maybe some later after a summer special session, when the lack of funds has driven some back to private fund-raising.

Pay it back.